Marshmello doesn’t give interviews. A minor, but fairly amusing fact about the anonymous EDM figure who so quickly rose to fame. Early last year, the mysterious artist, who is suspected to be the Philadelphia producer Dotcom, released his debut album Joyride, which brought together forward-thinking future bass and crunching dubstep drops. It’s nice, but it couldn’t have predicted his meteoric rise over the calendar year. He toured a number of festivals and by the end of 2016, Marshmello was selling out nearly any show. People couldn’t get enough of the masked performer. Well, one person could.
“You mean people like Marshmello? Let’s fucking clear the air on this one. I don’t care if you’re wearing a fucking helmet, I don’t give a shit—with that logic, I ripped off Daft Punk,” said Joel “Deadmau5” Zimmerman last December to Rolling Stone, when asked about his feelings on Marshmello copping his style. “The thing that pissed me off after awhile was the constant dick riding [on Twitter]. ‘You trolled me, I trolled you’—whatever. Don’t pass it off as a marketing technique.” Deadmau5, ever self-aware, didn’t take issue with the Marshmello’s clear aping of his aesthetic, but rather with the fact that Marshmello clearly trolled him in order to boost his own name.
Deadmau5 grew to popularity in the late 2000s with big, progressive house songs, and he openly admits his helmet thing came from his appreciation of Daft Punk. But Marshmello’s whole brand feels rooted in Zimmerman’s early antics. Except that where Deadmau5 is blunt and matter-of-fact in public, Marshmello is coy and trollish, as seen when Tiësto performed under the Marshmello’s signature white helmet during 2016 EDC Las Vegas. Those same bratty qualities appeared on his on Twitter feed where many of their tweets appear to exist with a wink, such as his running joke of always “meeting” Marshmello; it’s not meant to be serious, just an excuse for a little humor.
Even if the two bicker back-and-forth, the influence of Deadmau5 on the latest generation of EDM producers is fairly hard to deny. It’s more than the giant mouse head. One of his most famous statements was a Tumblr post titled “we all press play” that went into the details of how most EDM concerts aren’t intensive live technical wizardry; at their simplest, they can be boiled down to pressing play. Oddly enough, that missive didn’t bring on an existential crisis for any major performers. Last year’s biggest EDM phenomenon, The Chainsmokers, can and often do spend a lot of their set just standing on top of the decks and amping the crowd up. Instead of causing inward reflection, Deadmau5’s message inspired a “fuck it” from bigger acts, who know crowds don’t really care what you’re doing behind the decks and might as well make more of a game of it.
The other effect of Deadmau5 goes back to that helmet. There aren’t a million masked DJs that run EDM festivals now, because the gimmick would grow tired—but the mask did reduce the importance of the human element in the EDM equation. Due to the nature of the music, an electronic musician must make a lot of metaphorical and literal noise to rise above their tracks and connect with their fans. The way EDM is consumed at the moment happens a lot through streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud. That’s great for amassing plays but not raising awareness of one’s brand, unless one’s aesthetic is so defined that it transcends those limitations.
An example of this is the producer Parker, who started uploading music to SoundCloud early this year and started to rake in thousands of plays that seemingly came out of nowhere; the artist who at the time had hundreds of followers. All of his social media was newly created and the only image of him is a single crude cartoon drawing. The music is fairly strong, taking a lot of hints from the more abrasive side of dubstep that sounds fairly close to the recent work of producers like Ray Volpe and Getter. That they all share the same management company is certainly no coincidence, but it was hard to imagine an act like Parker finding any audience without the web and also without this trend: It is now commonplace to associate an artist not with their face but simply with an avatar.
In late March, Deadmau5 played a string of sold-out shows in New York City and one of the shows during that span was a smaller intimate show in Brooklyn that also functioned as a showcase for producers on his label mau5trap, including No Mana, BlackGummy, and Attlas. Deadmau5 got on stage a little before midnight, while No Mana was still performing and the two performed together before eventually Deadmau5 took over for another hour. No Mana’s slightly more upbeat and chiptune-inspired track transitioned into Deadmau5’s gritty industrial style. Still, while both were on stage, there was no obfuscation of their faces. Even if No Mana on SoundCloud puts up a neatly crafted aesthetic, it was a nice to see the person behind the curation. Mask on or mask off, people may enjoy going to a show where they can too bring a giant helmet to imitate their favorite act—another Marshmello trope owed to Deadmau5. But at the end of the day, what matters is the emotions one feels after the person in the booth presses play.